Another look at namespaces

Simon St.Laurent simonstl at
Sun Sep 19 17:40:39 BST 1999

At 10:20 AM 9/19/99 +0800, James Tauber wrote:
>Simon St.Laurent wrote:
>> We seem to have fallen into linguistics.
>And the problem with that is what exactly? :-)

In computing discussions, it usually signals that an enormous
communications breakdown either has occurred or is occurring.  Alternately,
it could mean that we're on the edge of a massive breakthrough, but I don't
think that's true in this case.

>[many quotes]
>Simon St.Laurent wrote:
>> I could start with H.L. Mencken's _The American Language_ (Fourth Edition
>> with Supplements, 1948), in particular a citation of Noah Webster, in
>> (second supplement, p. 333)
>Simon, you are talking about natural languages whereas Paul is talking about
>formal languages. A formal language is a set of valid utterances. A (formal)
>grammar is a collection of rules for generating that set of utterances.

I think you're both (James and Paul) overstating the distinction between
natural languages and formal languages, at least in the case of XML-derived
languages.  I'm not convinced any longer that 'designing' a language makes
any sense outside of very small arenas. HTML's development has been a
mixture of design and evolution, and I don't think trying to put it back on
the Procrustean bed of design is going to help us get anywhere.

>But that aside, XML is a formal language, not a natural one. Likewise, HTML
>4.0 is (despite what anyone says) three separate (formal) languages. In the
>case of HTML 4.0, the three share a common vocabulary, but they are separate
>languages. <aside>Namespaces, by the REC's definition, are about
>vocabularies, not languages.</aside>

I think I have to suggest that there is a difference between HTML 4.0 (the
formally specified, designed-by-experts version) and HTML (the one that's
used in real life) - and do what we can to improve HTML, the real-life
version.  If XHTML wants to design changes, they'd do well do consider what
the public will actually adopt, not try to force an odd notion of formal
grammars mapping to namespaces upon that public.

Of course, I already heard Tim Berners-Lee claim that "We are designing
this, not investigating it as a natural phenomenon."  So maybe I shouldn't
be too hopeful in that direction.

>> "They seem not to consider that grammar is formed on language, and not
>language on grammar."
>> That last sentence seems to summarize the problem we're having here.
>Both "grammar" and "language" as they are used in this quote predate formal
>notions by quite a few years! I think Noah Webster's point is merely that
>linguistics should be descriptive, not perscriptive (first lesson in
>Linguistics 101)

See above.  I think you're making too strong a claim about XML vocabularies
as formal languages.  I'd happily argue that they're a bunch of evolved
conventions strung together - much like natural languages, though usually
chopped down by a bunch of analysts.  Where's Walter Perry when I need him?

>However, that point is misleading at best when applied to formal languages.
>In particular:
>* XML is a language defined by a grammar.

XML provides a foundation - much like letters give English and alphabet to
create words with.  (Tim Bray: "XML is ASCII, etc.")

>* The XML REC clearly says that a DTD is a grammar for a class of documents.
>In a formal language view, this class of documents is a set of
>utterances---a formal language.

Except that in many cases there are multiple DTDs (for testing different
claims), or, in fact, no DTD at all.  Without a DTD, are we truly
'grammar-less'?  I don't think so.

>> Whether or not _The SGML Cookbook_ makes this claim that a language is not
>> constrained to a single grammar, I'll be making that claim in my next
>Depending on what you mean by "not constrained to" and what type of
>languages you mean, I either completely agree or completely disagree with
>you :-)

I guess you'll have to buy the book and find out! (Gross sales pitch, eh?)

Simon St.Laurent
XML: A Primer (2nd Ed - September)
Building XML Applications
Inside XML DTDs: Scientific and Technical
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